The Death of Socrates

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This is a collection of works by Plato that describe the final days of Socrates. This book is really four separate works: Euthyphro, The Trial of Socrates, Crito, and Pheado.

It’s interesting to consider why Plato chose to write these pieces, especially considering the importance and value placed on rigorous dialouge – known as the dialectic – within the Socratic circle of thinkers. These works take the form of reported dialogue, which by our standards seem quite ponderous. Either Socrates plays question-and-answer with a humouring, adoring philosophical friend, or Socrates launches into an extended monologue which can be read as a densely reasoned argument.

Socrates (it’s hard to draw a clear line between Plato and what Socrates actually thought; as all we know about Socrates essentially comes from Plato’s pen) reasons largely though comparison or via analogies. Sometimes this works quite well, but more often, forces Socrates into rather unwarranted and erroneous conclusions. For example Socrates cites Snow and Fire as opposites (akin to positive and negative). This might have made sense at the time, but to our lights, it’s a comical mistake.

Euthyphro is humorous and I suspect it might have served as some kind of intro to the thinking of Socrates for Plato’s neophytes. Euthyphro is a spiritual, priestly figure, but in a televangelist kind of way. The debate and discussion in this book is about the true meaning of piety. Socrates forces his interlocutor to define piety, then proceeds to poke holes in the definition, eventually forcing the discussion around to a better / his definition of piety. It’s hard for me to say that Socrates says all the can or should be said about piety, but  again, it’s a great introduction to the Socratic method.

The Trial is interesting because it presents Socrates defending himself to the charge of “corrupting the youth” to the citizenry of Athens. It’s a snapshot of philosophy and its complicated relationship with politics; the tension between the lofty philosopher and grimy, cruel reality. Socrates refuses to “play ball” with Athenian politics; he seeks to prove the case against him as nonsense – he does, but in such a way that pretty much ensures that the Athenians vote against him.

Phaedo is the most interesting; its a recount of the final hours of Socrates; it’s his final philosophical message; a closing testament of sorts. Socrates discusses the philosophical proof of the survival of the soul after death – anticipating a sort of reincarnation managed by divine magistrates. This discussion morphs into a fantastic description of the cosmos, entering around Earth and a complex circulation of water, fire and other elements. Tartarus – a sort of Greek hell – is seen as merely a giant cavern at the centre of the earth, where evil people wind up.

Reading Plato is fascinating because you can see it’s influence. You can see how his way of seeing things filters down through the ages. “All western philosophy can be summed up as a series of footnotes to Plato” (I for get who said that) is true.

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